Tuesday, February 18, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: BRONSON - Blind Rage by Philip Rawls

I ordered a used copy of this somewhat rare volume way back in September of 2012, after reading a great review of the book by pulp reviewer extraordinaire Joe Kenney over on his incredible Glorious Trash Blog. So as to not duplicate effort too much (i.e., I'm feeling lazy this morning), I'll link to Joe's review of this title, and his review is definitely worth reading. I read the book incredibly quickly - I think I zinged through it between one long Friday evening and a lazy Saturday morning. The action moves fast and the writing, as Joe states, is quite good for what is an extraordinarily trashy, lurid piece of 70's vigilante escapism.

However, unlike Joe, I'm just not feeling the love for this book. Most of my problems center around Bronson himself. The back cover copy claims the character used to be a "Knee-Jerk Liberal" who feels that criminals are simply poor misunderstood unfortunates in need of some TLC. However, none of this comes up in the book itself, and it is clear that the publisher is stealing the character from Brian Garfield's DEATH WISH, or more pointedly, the first DEATH WISH movie (naming the main character "Bronson" is a bit of a giveaway). Within the first five or six pages, our "Knee-Jerk Liberal" is already cold-bloodedly plotting how he's going to hunt down and exterminate all those responsible for his family's murders. He goes to a pawn shop and buys a silenced nine-millimeter automatic (funny how he manages to score one of those in 1975 at the first pawn shop he visits...), then almost immediately (it might be that very same night) starts hunting and killing off members of the gang affiliated with his family's killers.

As Joe points out in his review, Bronson has no problem killing anyone, and this is where it starts to get somewhat ridiculous. Supposedly he's doing this because he doesn't want to get identified, but of course within a few days of his rampage, the papers and the police are already fingering him for the murders since - surprise! - when you drop off the grid and then the criminals associated with your family's murder start dying, you're a suspect. In fact, since most of the killing Bronson does in his home town is with the same pistol he's used to kill a number of people who're clearly not in any way part of the killer's gang, if he'd gone to trial any sympathy related to his revenge killings would quickly go by the wayside. For a guy smart enough to wipe off his fingerprints everywhere he goes, and to at least occasionally pick up his cartridge casings, it is clear he hasn't thought a lot of this through. And, of course, if he wanted to be really thorough, he should have iced anyone who provided him with the weapons and information he uses in his rampage (the reporter, the pawn shop owner, the guy who sells him his car). But of course, one would never kill "real" people, those with jobs and who are productive members of society. Hookers aren't really people, right Bronson?

In retrospect, after reading through the book, it feels more like 190 pages of pure vitriol aimed at the "scum of society", and that means gays, minorities, and pretty much anyone else down on their luck. Although the elderly black woman who serves as his informant early on isn't depicted all that negatively, Bronson doesn't even hesitate to gun down in cold blood the young black men who visit her house while Bronson is there after he's discovered her dead (and of course, they're all armed). Sure, they're going to assume he killed her, but instead of using this as an opportunity to show some restraint on the character's part, the author just has him pulling the trigger. And, further on, Bronson and Teresa (his underage Chicano lover) are accosted by a Chicano gang that immediately attacks them in the parking lot of a diner, and they later go after the couple again in the middle of the highway during a blizzard (???). As for the way in which the author handles homosexuality, every gay man in the novel is depicted as some simpering, lisping, limp-wrist who comes onto Bronson like a runaway freight train. Honestly, it reads way too much like the archetypal anti-homosexual viewpoint that a gay man will try to pressure any straight man into having sex, no matter their personality (of which Bronson is entirely lacking) or looks (and we don't even know really what Bronson looks like, since he's essentially a cypher, an empty vessel we're supposed to pour our indignant selves into while reading).

In fact, throughout the book, Bronson has all the personality of your typical first-person shooter POV character, moving from target to target and killing / torturing in all matter of creative ways. I actually had less of a problem with the torture killings than I did with other aspects of the book, mostly because at least the people he tortures are directly responsible for the misery in his life. Again though, there is so little emotional justification - or emotion AT ALL - that I have essentially zero sympathy for Bronson. No, I don't need maudlin reflections on an idyllic white-collar suburban paradise now laid to waste, but Bronson might as well be the Terminator, for all the emotion he displays - and I also stick by that with regards to his relationship with Teresa, which I felt was extraordinarily wooden and stapled on, more of a "Yeah, I love you too - now shut up with your womanly caterwauling!" than anything else. Call me a Knee-Jerk Liberal, but I was pretty disgusted by a scene in the car where Bronson beats the crap out of Teresa for saying something about his family that he took offense to, and she tells him it's okay that he beats her up, as long as he doesn't hate her, and then she proceeds to tear his clothes off and have sex with him, because she's so turned on! 

To conclude, I can see this book reading well for its target demographic circa 1975, but it doesn't age very gracefully. I'm not looking for all the psychological self-reflection Brian Garfield put into DEATH WISH (here's my review of that book if you're interested), but the character of Bronson is so non-existent, I felt the only depiction of his character - and by that I mean, inner character - was in his actions, and those don't create a very sympathetic protagonist.


Brian Drake said...

Boy, Jack....you sure sound like a "knee-jerk liberal" in this review!

Haw haw haw....I'm kidding, of course.

I'm an avid reader of Joe's blog and have maintained an interest in '70s men's adventure for some time, and I have come to realize that the Executioner, the Survivalist and the Destroyer really were the final words on the matter in terms of quality storytelling. Everybody else was after a buck.

Jack Badelaire said...

What can I say, Brian? I'm just another latte-sipping long-haired peacenik trying to tear down the fabric of our society!

In all seriousness, reading Joe's discussion of the book's publishing history, it really sounds like, more than most, this was nothing but a grab at the popularity of the DW movie (which came out the year before).

Indyguy said...

Reminds me of a certain movie that depicted and critiqued that sort of grim urban worldview...
"April 10, 1972. Thank God for the rain which has helped wash the garbage and trash off the sidewalks. I’m working a single now, which means stretch-shifts, six to six, sometimes six to eight in the a.m., six days a week. It’s a hustle, but it keeps me busy. I can take in three to three-fifty a week, more with skims. I work the whole city, up, down, don’t make no difference to me – does to some. Some won’t take spooks – Hell, don’t make no difference to me. They’re all animals anyway. All the animals come out at night: Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."

Charles Gramlich said...

I read "Streets of Blood" from this series and thought it was pretty awful.

Joe Kenney said...

Jack, thanks for the link and the kind words about my blog. Sorry to hear you didn't enjoy the novel as much as I did, though. Personally I think it's a masterpiece, mostly due to all of the reasons you condemned it! It just comes off like a perfect piece of '70s white conservative male paranoia. And the dark humor is incredible, though I have to admit I forgot all about that part where Bronson slaps around his girlfriend.

"Streets of Blood," mentioned above, was actually written by Len Levinson -- I know from him that it has nothing to do with this first novel in the series, as Len never read it or had even heard of it when he wrote his installment.

Jack Badelaire said...

Hey Joe, thanks for stopping by! I can, objectively, see all your points regarding the book as a kind of perfect storm of all things 70's trash fiction - I guess it's just a little TOO perfect for me. In contrast, Hardman #1 dealt in one way or another with a lot of these same issues, but I just preferred the way they were handled.

Still, I've ordered Streets of Blood, and look forward to reading it. When I posted my review to Facebook, Len popped on (he's on FB now) and talked about writing the second book. There'll definitely be a compare and contrast of the two.

steve said...

Thank you for the wonderful and real information published in your books.

Tom said...

Did you guys ever figure out who wrote this one?